Merck & Co. is buying into another Alzheimer’s drug, this time through a backloaded deal with Boston-based Cerevance.
Under the terms of the deal, Merck will take over one research program and collaborate with Cerevance to identify new protein targets in the brain.
Cerevance will get $25 million upfront and could receive up to $1.1 billion more if it hits certain development and commercial milestones. Reaching those milestones is highly uncertain — Alzheimer’s drug development is notoriously difficult and nearly every single treatment tested for the disease has failed. Pharmaceutical companies, including Merck, have kept looking, given the disease’s devastating impact and wide prevalence.
Founded in the U.K. in 2016, Cerevance focuses on central nervous system and neurodegenerative diseases. Its lead drug candidate targets Parkinson's disease and in March, the company reported results from a Phase 2 clinical trial. In 2019, it brokered a deal with Takeda to pursue central nervous system disease targets and to develop drugs for gastrointestinal disorders. But the company has also zeroed in on dementia and Alzheimer’s, too.
When Cerevance entered discussions with Merck in early 2022, the big pharma company was “impressed” with its drug discovery platform, which employs machine learning to identify new neurological disease targets, said Craig Thompson, who joined Cerevance as its CEO in April.
“There's a lot of disease areas to find something for but this continually impacts more people as the population continues to age,” Thompson said. More than 6 million Americans are affected by Alzheimer’s, according to data from the Alzheimer’s Association.
Cerevance uses tissue from 24 brain banks to study how neurodegenerative diseases progress. By isolating specific cells in both healthy and diseased brain tissue samples, researchers can look for particular proteins and examine biological pathways that are harder to see in mice or with stem cells.
The company’s platform allows it to search for promising targets in mature brain cells, even those that are expressed at lower levels and might otherwise go undetected with other methods.
Cerevance’s target does not appear to be amyloid, the sticky protein that’s drawn the interest of Alzheimer’s drug developers for decades, but Thompson declined to specify what it’s pursuing instead.
“There is a novel target identified for the discovery-stage program; however, we will also explore targets not yet identified,” he said
Takeda and venture capital firm Lightstone Ventures launched Cerevance with a $36 million Series A round. Its most recent funding was a $65 million Series B round in 2020 from investors that included Bill Gates and GV.
The alliance with Cerevance represents a new foray into Alzheimer’s drug development for Merck. Its last high-profile effort ended in 2017, when it halted study of a drug called verubecestat after trial monitors determined there “virtually no chance of finding a positive clinical effect."
Merck did not respond to a request for comment.
Most Alzheimer’s drugs have, in one way or another, been designed to clear amyloid protein from the brain. But again and again, treatments from companies including Merck, Roche, Eli Lilly and AstraZeneca have failed in late-stage testing.
In June 2021, the Food and Drug Administration controversially granted Biogen accelerated approval for its Alzheimer's drug Aduhelm, which had delivered contradictory results in late-stage clinical trials. Aduhelm is meant to slow the cognitive and physical decline that occurs in Alzheimer's patients by targeting amyloid.
Biogen’s partner Eisai has put another amyloid-targeting Alzheimer's drug called lecanemab in front of the FDA this year, as has Lilly with its candidate, donanemab.